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I first saw 'Salem's Lot' back in about 1984 when it was shown as a two-part mini-series on the BBC. I will have been around 12 at the time and don't mind admitting that it scared the living daylights out of me! Granted, it's probably not difficult to scare the living daylights out of a 12-year-old boy but this film genuinely gave me the willies and to this day in my opinion it's one of the best, if not THE best vampire tale I've seen.
Based on Stephen King's best selling novel, and directed by Tobe Hooper, it was originally aired as the aforementioned two-part mini-series, with a total run time of around 3 hours. A cut down movie version was also released, but you really should check out the 'full length version' as this has both 90-minute parts in full.
The plot revolves around Ben Mears (David Soul), who returns to the town of his childhood, Salem's Lot to write a novel. Naturally, Salem's Lot is a small sleepy town in Maine (This IS a Stephen King story remember)! Mears is fascinated by 'The Marsten House', and it's two sinister new inhabitants, Mr Straker (James Mason), and Mr Barlow (Reggie Nalder). It isn't before long that people start to disappear and die (or is that die, THEN disappear) and we have a classic vampire story.
The casting of David 'Hutch' Soul is certainly interesting. I've seen opinions that he is miscast in the role but I disagree. Yes, initially it's difficult to get the 'Starsky and Hutch' thing out of your mind as Soul will never be able to leave the role of Hutch behind him, but it doesn't take long before this is put to the back of your mind. James Mason is superb as Mr Straker, portraying a real sense of evil.
Another controversial point is the way that Mr Barlow is portrayed. In the novel, he is a sophisticated and intelligent creature who charms his way through the story. But in the film this gives way to a 'Nosferatu' creature, which doesn't speak and only grunts. In fact, Barlow only appears in a few scenes of the film, whilst in the book much of the story revolves around him. This I can forgive though as of course, there is no way every detail in a novel can be included in a movie, and if they had attempted to mirror the book in this way the movie would probably have ended up 6 hours in length! This asside, the Nosferatu creature is one of the most visually impressive vampires you will ever see. This 'thing' looks genuinely frightening!
The thing I like about 'Salem's Lot' is the fact that doesn't rely on shocks or gore for the scare factor. (There is literally ONE drop of blood in the entire film). True, there is the odd scene that makes you jump, but for the most part, tension is built up slowly. In fact, in the best scenes, you know exactly what is about to happen, and yet when it does it still has the desired effect!
If there is one criticism I could make of the film, it's that it takes a while to get going, and then suddenly accelerates towards the end at warp speed. Much of the first half is spent introducing the characters and developing the storyline, (which is not a bad thing actually). But it's as if Hooper suddenly realised half way through that he only had a certain amount of time left and needed to get things moving at break neck speed!
This criticism aside, there isn't really any other negative thing I can say about 'Salem's Lot'. It's superbly filmed, and has bucket loads of atmosphere and is genuinely scary. Soul and Mason are also excellent as the two film's central characters and are backed up by a strong supporting case including Bonnie Bedelia. Highly recommended for all vampire lovers!